The Inner Game of Choral Rehearsals 4: Trust

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Along with Awareness and Will, Trust makes up the trio of central principles of the Inner Game. In some ways, Trust is the most fundamental of the three: the heart of the inner game is about getting your judgemental, conscious self out the way and letting your carefully-honed skills get on with the job.

Many of the basic exercises in the original inner game context of tennis are essentially about trust, and usually involve providing a focus for the conscious brain to keep it occupied and out of mischief so that it doesn’t start interfering with what you’re doing. Saying ‘bounce’ when the ball hits the ground and ‘hit’ when it meets the racket may be an absurdly simply thing to do, but it very effectively silences the distracting stream of inner commentary and keeps your attention on the tennis ball.

Trust exercises for ensembles often have elements of play involved – they invite people to relinquish their dignity and instead engage their fantasy. Examples might include:

  • Replacing the given text with a funny word. (Pick your word according to the musical and expressive context, but useful possibilities include: penguin, avocado, toenail and antidisestablishmentarianism.) Encourage the singers to imbue the word with the full meaning of the actual text in all its dramatic glory.
  • Sitting-standing-kneeling (as seen in the improvisational game show Whose Line Is It Anyway?). As you sing, each choir member has to make sure that they are in a different position from the singers either side of them.
  • Adopt a character quite at odds with actual persona of the music. A Dies Irae sung in the style of an eager four-year-old, for example, or a tender love-song in the style of a vengeful harpy.

These kinds of exercises are useful in a general way for lightening the atmosphere, getting tension of the voices, bodies and minds, and building a sense of team – all of which are by-products of the basic banishment of negative self-talk. But you can also deploy trust games more strategically to promote specific learning goals. Singing ‘bingo’ every time your part has an accidental supports the development of music literacy; or, at a more advanced stage, singing ‘bingo’ every time the music features a secondary dominant.

In a choral situation of course, you have the double layer of trust issues: the basic inner game issue of trusting yourself, and the ensemble issue of trusting each other. My hunch is that these two layers are interdependent. It is hard to immerse yourself into the musical flow if you know that another singer is liable to criticise your part for its tuning periodically throughout the rehearsal; likewise, it is hard believe in your colleagues if you don’t believe in yourself.

And this has particular relevance for directors. If we want to help our singers trust themselves, we also need to trust them. Yes of course they are going to make mistakes – they are after all human beings, and that’s why we have rehearsals after all. But we don’t have to spend our rehearsals waiting to pounce on them, and we certainly don’t have to interrupt the singers every two bars over every mis-matched vowel. If we offer our singers the opportunity to make music, to create beauty, to be expressive, they will reward us with much better quality attention when we turn to the detailed work – and they’ll also make fewer mistakes to begin with.

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